May 21, 2012

Watson's swings and roundabouts

When Shane Watson returned from injury, it was to a changed side and a modified role. He talks about his time outside, and the captaincy

In a largely triumphant summer for Australia, Shane Watson cut a quite enigmatic figure. He was oddly missing from the central passages of the summer, Test matches at home to New Zealand and India, as his recovery from hamstring and calf problems took close to three months. But on his return he led Australia's ODI team at home and away, then took on the role of No. 3 batsman in the West Indies. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo about a summer of joys but also of rude awakenings.

You had a strange summer - an active part on tours to Sri Lanka, South Africa and the West Indies, but with a great, gaping hole in the middle.
It's been a summer that really gave me time to reassess where I was at physically, especially to be able to try and get through the cricket I wanted. After playing a lot through Sri Lanka, then South Africa as well, there's no doubt the summer was a big disappointment, not to be able to play a part in any of that, especially the success we had against India.

In the end I learned a lot more things about myself - what I need and what's required to give myself the best chance to play consistently. For it to finish the way it has, be part of a winning West Indian series and be able to captain a few games as well, was something I really enjoyed. A few swings and roundabouts, but in the end there's been a few really good experiences I've learned a lot from.

Why did it take so long to come back from what appeared to be fairly minor hamstring and calf injuries?
My hamstring issue was something that came about in the latter part of the South Africa tour. Coming back from it, doing some running to get some load into my hamstring, my calf ended up going. It ended up coming back to the reason why I had soft-tissue injuries when I was younger. Most had to do with the nerve side of things and back injuries at a young age. So it took quite a while to settle down and through some intervention try to find ways to settle my nervous system down through my lower limbs. That's why it took quite a while, because as soon as I started to get up and running again, with my calf issue, the nerve issue kept tightening up.

It was a very important time across the summer to reassess where I was at physically and put things into place that I know had worked previously. And playing so much cricket, I have to be on top of every single thing and have the continued right guidance to ensure I'm doing all I possibly can to get through.

Fairly early in your convalescence you stated that you wanted to come back into the Test team as a batsman and then work into bowling. That clearly did not happen. Were you told that the team wanted you back as an allrounder?
In the end, the way it worked out was that the time I could actually get back and play was as an allrounder straight up. Initially, with the hamstring injury you can play as a batsman, but after being out for as long as I was, it meant the longer you leave it, the longer it takes to get back up and going. The way the fixtures were meant I could play grade cricket, then go into a Shield game and get some time in the middle as well - by the time I got back I hadn't batted for two and a half months - to get some touch back. It worked out that I was able to get into my bowling straight away as well. At other times in the past, if it's just been a niggle or something like that, I've been able to get back as a batsman right away then come back into it as a bowler. But this time the situation meant I was back as an allrounder.

Your first-class return was in a fairly traumatic game for New South Wales, against Western Australia at the WACA ground - a hefty innings defeat. How jolting was that?
That was an absolute debacle really. To play in a game where we performed so poorly was something that opened my eyes. I've been around the NSW squad for a couple of years now and just to see the different stages guys were at in their careers - some were coming back from being in and around the Australian squad and playing Shield cricket and trying to perform and push their way back into the Australian team. That alone provides a lot of different dynamics to the team. That's something NSW needs to make sure of - that everyone really knows their role in the team and how to fulfil that role.

It was a very interesting game to be a part of, knowing NSW and how successful it has been, I'm sure that's as low as they can really get, and if they don't learn out of that game alone, there's a lot of signs there to show what's required to get back to having the structure exactly right.

"I think it was a really good thing to have someone with no preconceived ideas about what's required for the team to be at their best. That's really what he's brought, a fresh set of eyes"
Watson on Mickey Arthur's appointment as Australia coach

Do you mean that players dropped from the national team come back to their state with a very narrow focus of getting themselves right rather than contributing to a winning team?
Not so much that - it's the whole thing about playing for Australia and the scrutiny that you're under. Everyone seems to know your faults, and they do because everyone's seen what you're doing on national TV. Then coming back and finding ways of being able to score runs - if you've been dropped it means you're not scoring runs. So it means you're either technically or mentally not in the greatest place. It just means guys are probably going to be struggling to try to find ways to work out what's been going on and how they can turn all those fortunes around. I wouldn't say it's selfish at all, but I am saying it is more about trying to find a way to handle what's just happened in your career, because everyone's dream is to play for Australia and when that's taken away from you because of your performances, it takes a bit of time to get back in the right direction to achieve your goal again.

Back into the Australian team via the triangular series in February - how different a set-up did you return to? Things were still quite transitional when you left them in South Africa.
Things had certainly changed quite significantly really, from Mickey [Arthur] and all the things he'd put in place through the whole summer, with Pat Howard and his role, and also the new selectors being there as well. So it was a very different feel around the group. Especially after the success that the team had during the Test series [against India], there was a great feel about what was being put in place. It was a very exciting time to come back into the team, where things were starting to be put in place about continuing to see improvement as a team, with fresh faces.

What did you feel had changed around the team?
It's not like what guys have done has reinvented the wheel. Things were pretty similar, but more so the way Mickey operates is being really concise and structured in how we're going to do things on the training field. Different coaches have different philosophies on how they're able to operate. It was a significant change from what Tim [Nielsen] had put in place, and there's no doubt that there were changes from having fresh eyes and a fresh face coming in. That's what Mickey's provided - having a fresh set of eyes coming outside Australian cricket. I think it was a really good thing to have someone with no preconceived ideas - apart from playing against Australia - about what's required for the team to be at their best. That's what he's brought, a fresh set of eyes. As Pat Howard has as well, not being from cricket at all. It means they've got a very different perspective on what they see, and they don't have any preconceived ideas about what's expected.

You seemed to have an attitude change across your absence, from clearly wanting to come back as an opener to simply wanting to get back into the team in whatever role you could. You became a little less particular?
No doubt. I did love opening the batting in Test cricket, there's no doubt, and that's where I've had my success. But even when I was at the start of my injury period, once Mickey had taken over, I talked to him about what the best position is for me to try to fit into the team as an allrounder. We talked quite a bit about whether it was opening, whether it was batting No. 3 or lower in the order; to try to balance being an allrounder as well as we could. That was always being talked about anyway.

At the time I had no idea about batting anywhere else, really. I knew I had a lot of success opening, so that's where I felt most comfortable. But in the end you just want to play, and being out for three months you just want to be back into a successful environment and able to contribute. So my mindset outwardly was changed. It was a point I'd talked to Michael [Clarke] about where the best place would be and juggling being an allrounder as best we could. Batting three in the West Indies is something I really appreciated, the time to mentally and physically relax, even if it's only a little bit.

You had time as a captain in two limited-overs series at home and in the West Indies. What did you find most challenging?
Being a selector is a challenge that provides a different aspect to being a captain and something that has a different complexity. But on the field it's more so - seeing what your gut instincts are, and only when you're put in the position of having to make decisions at certain times do you realise the extent of what you've learned in ten years of first-class cricket. That's been the thing I've enjoyed the most, seeing what is inside of your mind come out.

The challenges for me were the most exciting things, trying to find ways of being successful in the latter periods of one-dayers, which we still haven't been able to nail in that batting Powerplay, and also the latter five or ten overs. That's something that I enjoyed - the challenge of how we were going to execute better but also how we can do it differently to be more successful. Also, talking about what the best balance of the batting line-up is and trying to get the best out of everyone in new conditions. Those challenges were the most enjoyable things about it, really challenging my cricket knowledge and using it as best I can.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here